Analysis

Five issues to watch as Denver Public Schools students return to the classroom

Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg speaks to students at Denver's McMeen Elementary School in 2014.

Denver Public Schools understandably gets more attention than any other school district in the state.

It’s Colorado’s biggest school district and a nationally recognized petri dish for reform. As a skyline of construction cranes stand testament to the city’s booming growth, DPS continues to grapple with the ever-present challenges of educating students on the margins of society.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg just re-upped for another two years leading the country’s fastest growing large urban school district — and he has a largely supportive board behind him. Although some schools got a head start, most of DPS’s roughly 90,000 students said goodbye to summer Monday.

Here are five issues to watch in DPS this school year:

Equity and integration

Equity is an omnipresent DPS buzzword, and providing a great education for all lurks at the heart of many a district initiative. Closing achievement gaps between students of color, English language learners, students with disabilities and their peers is a priority of the district’s Denver Plan 2020, its strategic planning document.

To that end, the district incorporated equity into its School Performance Framework, its color-coded guide to how schools are doing.

An open question is how integration of schools fits into this vision.

DPS has promoted shared enrollment zones — in which traditional neighborhood boundaries dissolve and residents in a larger geographic area pick from a variety of schools but may not get their first choice — as a tool for promoting school choice and integration. Will that eventually help lead to more integrated schools? Or when given a choice, will families opt for schools that will keep races largely separate?

School segregation has received national media attention in recent months, and the spotlight will fall on Denver this year with the 20th anniversary of the end of school busing.

Elections

Three of the seven school board seats are in play in November. This may seem like somewhat of a snoozer, since the outcome will not swing the pendulum away from board support (for the most part) of the district’s direction. But it could result in an even more united front — and 7-0 votes.

Boasberg on the record
We asked DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg what his list would look like. His answers:
  • An emphasis on classrooms being “joyful, rigorous and personalized” and giving teachers the training, coaching and feedback to realize that.
  • The expansion of DPS’s teacher leadership program, which created a hybrid role in which teacher-leaders teach some classes while taking on additional responsibilities.
  • Expansion of career and technical education programs at several high schools.
  • The district’s offer to give school leaders more flexibility and autonomy.
  • Developing stronger school leadership pipelines and preparation.

There’s a compelling argument for the value of voices that push back. But a united board can be hard-nosed, too, and some insiders say the current majority has asked harder questions of Boasberg than the previous one from a more closely divided era.

The most hard-fought race is shaping up to be in northwest Denver’s District 5, where lone consistent dissenting voice Arturo Jimenez is leaving because of term limits.

Will candidate Michael Kiley assume that mantle by tapping into the same anti-establishment feeling that carried Rafael Espinoza to a Denver City Council seat in the same neighborhood? Kiley faces Lisa Flores, a former senior program officer at the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation who would mesh well with the current majority.

In southeast Denver’s District 1, Anne Rowe has the advantage of incumbency. She faces upstart Kristi Butkovich, who has criticized “privatization” of education. Records show another potential wild card in District 1, Mike Zink, took out petitions on Aug. 17 but has yet to turn them in. (UPDATE: Zink, a self-described conservative with Tea Party leanings, said Monday he has decided not to run, citing a lack of time and money).

Board chair Happy Haynes so far lacks an opponent for her at-large seat.

Greater autonomy — if schools want it

In a major shift, DPS offered principals the chance to opt their schools out of centrally approved curriculum, teacher training and assessments this school year and go their own way. About one-fifth of principals seized the opportunity.

A more decentralized district is a significant turning point for a district with a historically strong central administration.

What will this end up looking like? What kind of choices will principals make, and why? How many will take the option next year, with more time to plan?

“I think principals have tremendously welcomed it,” Boasberg said in an interview last week. “I think we’re early in the process. The biggest concern we heard from principals last year was, ‘I wish I would have known this earlier.’ Now they do know it, they have multiple months to plan out as they think about their own budgets and their scheduling and their own processes.”

Manual High

What’s next for Manual, the proud but long-troubled high school in near northeast Denver at the heart of the city’s African-American community?

The school has been the focus of one failed reform effort after another, and most recently has suffered from a decline in academic performance and a staff exodus.

The man charged with turning things around this time is principal Nick Dawkins, who is banking on a new career and technical education program bankrolled by Kaiser Permanente as a catalyst.

The Manual community has another major issue on the plate this fall — a new middle school to be co-located on the campus. The hope is to bring a much-needed additional quality middle school to the area and steer more area kids to Manual.

Three schools are seeking to fill that role — a spinoff of McAuliffe International School in Park Hill, Denver Dual Language Academy and Denver School of History Speech and Debate.

New schools — and where to put them

The district faces several other decisions about new schools, including in southwest Denver and seeing through a major expansion of the homegrown charter school juggernaut that is DSST.

In June, the DPS board approved a plan to add eight new schools to the network, in addition to nine existing schools and five previously approved. Four of the schools — two middle schools and two high schools — will focus on the humanities, a break from the DSST model. The district will decide on a location for a new DSST middle school this fall.

One subplot to watch — the charter network’s growth comes as the district faces increasing pressure in gentrifying northwest and northeast Denver for stronger traditional neighborhood schools. If space becomes a premium, will those visions be at odds?

In southwest Denver, where choice and transportation continue to be vexing issues, DPS will choose from both charter- and district-run options for a replacement for Henry World Middle School and a new middle school to share a campus with Abraham Lincoln High School.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.